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Saturday, November 18, 2023

Downtown Music Gallery - Keeping the Music Alive

Entrance to the Downtown Music Gallery, June 2023

By Paul Acquaro with Bruce Gallanter

In the early 2000s as I was fumbling my way into ever more challenging music, I somehow 'discovered' the Downtown Music Gallery in its incarnation on the Bowery in downtown New York City. I was innocently walking up the street and in a somewhat opaque window noticed Dave Douglas' Strange Liberation, and went in. I ended up instead buying Nucleus' Live in Bremen, which was playing in the store at the time, I also had taken the first steps through a gateway to whole other world. 

I returned again and again, following the store to their current location in a basement in the Two Bridges neighborhood, which is about as downtown as one can go in Manhattan. As my listening habits grew more adventurous, I dug ever deeper in the subterranean treasure trove, often making the long trek from the comforts of suburban N.J. to the store to catch the free shows - featuring a everyone from Raoul Bjorkenheim to Vinny Golia to jamie branch and so many more - on Sunday evenings. These days, though I'm no longer in NYC, I still visit DMG online and try to pay a real visit whenever possible.

The record store is now an impressive 32 years old (that's pretty old in record-store years) and still keeping the downtown scene music alive with live sets every week and a mind boggling array of CDs, LPs, books and more for sale. Today, we pay a visit to Bruce Gallanter to learn about the history of DMG as well as the challenges it faces, and tomorrow Bruce answers the "Sunday Interview" questions (though modified slightly for a record store proprietor).

The Downtown Music Gallery

Bruce Gallanter. June 2023.

Paul Acquaro: Can you tell us the history of DMG? How did it start, the different locations, how it has developed over time...

Bruce Gallanter: I’ve been working in record stores ever since graduating college in 1976. Starting with Pepperment Platters in Woodbridge, NJ (1977), Record Hunter, NYC (42nd & 5th Ave, 1978=1979), Vinyl Mania Jazz Store (Carmine St, west Village - 1977) and Lunch for Yor Ears (Prince St, around the corner from the original Knitting Factory - 1988-89. I also worked for a couple of record distributor - Rainbow Distribution (1977) and JEM Import Distribution (Piscataway, NJ - 1976). While working for JEM, I was a salesperson and met Manny Maris whose store was called Lunch (For Your Ears). I worked for Lunch for two years, 1988-1989. Lunch specialized in progressive & Downtown, as well as avant jazz and anything Manny or myself would recommend. Since Lunch was around the corner from the Knitting Factory, we ended up specializing in all of the Downtown bands & musicians: Material, Massacre, Golden Palominos, the President, Curlew, Skeleton Crew… We also became friends with all of the Downtown musicians who eventually started to play weekly free sets at Lunch every Friday. Manny ended up with a problem and Lunch closed in 1990. I left before it closed.

Two friends of mine approached me while I was looking for another record store gig, David Yamner (corporate lawyer) and Steve Popkin (DJ & music fan addict like myself). They wanted to start a new store which specialized in used & new CD’s & LP’s which was quickly growing market. They asked me to run the store and I was supposed to be a partner with them. I couldn’t come up with the funds needed to be a partner so I ended up working for them. We specialized in progressive, Canterbury, Downtown & avant jazz, as well as the many different types of music that I dug: modern classical, hardcore punk, psych, folk, country, world music… After a year of searching for an affordable place, we opened in May of 1991, at 211 East 5th St, between 3rd & 2nd Aves, around the corner from Cooper Union. I was working 6 days a week and Popkin worked Saturday night & Sundays. After a year or so, Popkin left his job in the garment industry so both of us worked at DMG full time.  

When we opened in 1991, there were around 100 record stores in Manhattan, now there are around ten. We were two blocks from Tower Records and three blocks from St. Marks Place, which had several stores like Kim’s Underground and Sounds. Many record freaks would come in every weekend and go to all the stores in our area since we each would specialize in different things. Being a big progressive/Downtown/avant jazz music fan myself, I went to concerts upwards of 5 or 6 nights a week and spent most night at the Knitting Factory, as well as jazz clubs, rock clubs, etc. We started to have weekly gigs at our store but then Tower threw out a large LP bin which Popkin & I wheeled over to the store and placed in the middle of the store, which meant that there was no more room for the weekly in-stores. This upset me but since I wasn’t one of the owners, there was not much that I could do. Popkin eventually open another DMG in the West Village, which specialized in disco, funk & other dance floor music which I was not into. The store wasn’t doing so well financially and I grew frustrated with the direction and missed the in-store sets. Yamner called me asked if I could come up with a solution to make the store more successful. I said to get rid of his partner and make me the manager, which he did.  

This was in 1997 and I decided to make some changes. We got ride of the LP bin in the center of the floor and started to have weekly in-store sets again. I have always befriended the many musicians that I’ve admired since I believe the creative musicians continue to inspire us. In the first few years that we were open I did a few great concerts in the store: Derek Bailey, Peter Kowald, Joelle Leandre, Elton Dean, Lol Coxhill… When we started to have weekly concerts again in 1997, I would ask many musicians to come play: Annette Peacock, Marc Ribot, Nels Cline, Thomas Chapin, Gary Lucas… We also started to anniversary celebrations every year, many at the Knitting Factory and later at Tonic. 

About a year after I became the manager, Yamner called and said that I had done a good job and decided to sell me the store. He said that he just wanted his initial investment of $65,000, which I didn’t have but agreed to pay off at $20 a day / $140 per week. It took around 7 years, but I did pay it off. During the first couple of years, it was just me and Emperor Mike, who dug dark metal and was an easy person to work with. He worked with me on & off for more than a decade. Around the same time John Zorn & his business partner Kazunori Sugiyama asked if we wanted to take over the mailorder/fulfillment for Tzadik records. I was happy to do this as I was close to Mr. Zorn and respected the amount of work he put into every release, every concert and anything else he chose to do. It was around this time that my old boss Manny Maris appeared back in NYC and I asked him to help out at the store working one day a week. We started to get regular weekly customers in the store who wanted to know about every release from Downtown, progressive and Canterbury musicians so started a monthly printed newsletter which we gave out to help stimulate sales. Eventually it became every two weeks and then weekly. We also started out our website around 1995 and started to send out the DMG weekly newsletter in 1997 or 1998, which still continues today. The current number of subscribers is around 7,000.

They kept raising our rent every year. When it went beyond $2,000, I decided it was time to move. We lucked out and found a place at 342 Bowery, just a few blocks away, between Great Jones & Bond Sts. We were down the block from CBGB’s and even closer to Tower, as well as Other Music. The Bowery was a well traveled avenue and was just starting to become gentrified. We had a double basement space so we subleased one side to Mothers Messenger Service which was co-ran by Dee Pop, former drummer for the Bush Tetras, a big jazz fan and good friend. Manny and I became partners right before we moved. Originally on Friday nights, we moved the in-store gigs to Sunday nights, every week. Since we were more highly visible, more people would come to visit, our in-store and mail-order traffic increased quite a bit. Dee Pop started to book weekly shows in the basement CBGB’s canteen also on Sunday nights so we coordinated and had our sets at 6pm (1 band, usually) and Dee Pop’s sets started at 7pm. A number of regulars would go to both sets here and at CB’s. When Emperor Mike left, he was replaced by Mikey “IQ” Jones, another swell younger guy who new quite a bit about the music that we sell. At this point, our mail-order (mostly CD’s) had increased until we had a mail-order person working here 7 days a week! 

John Zorn had started a performance place in 2005 called The Stone which was located at the corner of 2nd St & Avenue C. It was named after Irving Stone, who was married to Stephanie, an older couple that were already John Zorn/Downtown music fans when I met them in 1980. The Stone was a funky, no-nonsense room where you had to want across the band stand in order to get to the bathroom, wait on line outside no matter the weather and placed no music on the PA before or after the performance. Both Manny and I became unpaid volunteers at The Stone, which we were proud to do. In December of 2006, Manny and I were asked to curate The Stone for a month, six nights a week, two sets per night. We put together an incredible month and asked some 25 musicians from around the world to play, paying them $1,000 each cash from a piggy bank underneath my bed (no joke). I asked three members of Henry Cow (my favorite progressive band), Fred Frith, Tim Hodgkinson & Chris Cutler, to play that month and they said yes! Folks came from around the world to attend these shows! 

Anyway, eventually the rent kept going up at the Bowery location, and went from $4,000 (which we could barely afford) until $10,000 a month, so had to move again in December of 2009. 

 In store performance: Sandy Ewen /Seth Andrew Davis / Kyle Hutchins

PA: Where the store is located now, it requires a real effort to get to, but people do - it's almost a pilgrimage for some visitors. Why is this? What do you think makes it such a destination?

BG: We moved to 13 Monroe St in Chinatown in January of 2020. I had never heard of Monroe Street, which is in the two bridges section, between the Manhattan & Brooklyn bridges. We are between Catherine and Market Streets, about two blocks from the river with Brooklyn on the other side. When we moved there were no stores on the block, just several Chinese/Buddhist temples, a couple of beauty salons, a grocery store and small drug store. Our manager at the time was Chuck Bettis, a good electronic musician and a nice person work with. 

We’ve been here now almost 13 years and it is a struggle to survive. Walk-in traffic is mostly minimal yet steady and our mail-order business has consistently decreased as less folks buy CD’s and many folks just download their music to listen to on their phones. We still carry CD’s, LP’s, cassettes, t-shirts and books, although CD’s sell less than ever, especially used CD’s. We are now mostly a destination place and many folks complain that we are hard to get to. Still we still get some diehards who are looking for some of the types of music we still specialize in. We have around 60% CD’s, 35% LP’s plus t-shirts, books and cassettes. For fans of John Zorn, Bill Laswell & the rest of the Downtown elders and youngers, Canterbury (Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Henry Cow…), Free/Jazz, modern classical, world music, 60’s & 70’s rock, soul & dub, we are still the pace to find these discs. We’ve had a number of musicians work here through the years: Chris Pitsiokos, Dave Miller, Frank Meadows, Kevin Murray. Charmaine Lee, John Mori and James Paul Nadien. 

Everyone who works here is friendly and informative. Although we closed down for three months during the pandemic, we continued to do mail-order and ran concerts outside, around the corner at Oliver Coffee for the entire summer of 2020. We are now closed on Sundays so we’ve moved the in-stores to Tuesdays and they’ve continued to be a source of inspiration to those in attendance as well as myself.

PA: You mentioned in a recent email blast that the store was facing some challenges - could you elaborate?

BG: We seem to attract some big-time die-hard music fanatics, so we’ve had a handful of them throughout our long journey. Over the past couple of years, we had two customers who often bought $500-$1,000 per month. There two folks were integral to our survival and both have abandoned us in recent months for different reasons which have nothing to do with our service. We still have a handful of regular customers who do keep us afloat. The one label which we still sell in some quantity is John Zorn Tzadik label. Since we do their mail-order, this keeps us busy whenever that order arrives. There are number of other challenges like the dust in the store, occasional flooding and trying to keep our inventory organized.

PA: Are there any "trends" that are you seeing from your customers? For example, do you see younger generations buying music? If so, what are they looking for?

BG: Over the past decade, many record stores have closed in NYC due to increasing unfair rents, plus a number of distributors and labels have closed down due to decrease of CD sales. They say that vinyl has come back and I can see that some distributors (like Forced Exposure) sell mostly (75-90%) vinyl nowadays. We do sell some vinyl and I do stock as much Downtown and progressive vinyl as I can. Some of it does sell. When tourists or regular customers come in, they are often looking for classic rock & soul from the 60’s and 70’s. Hence, I have been ordering more reissue vinyl over the past few years. We now have a full row of classic rock, folk, country, reggae & soul LP’s. We are running out of used LP’s and need to buy another collection to fill our bins. We did get a nice collection of around 1,500 pieces last year, 1/2 CD’s and 1/2 LP’s from an old DJ. We’ve done well with these. 

A trend for us is that we sell more items through Discogs now than we do through the weekly newsletters. We have around 4,600 items up on Discogs, LP’s, CD’s & cassettes. Discogs only works for us if we have the best price or we are one of the only sources of certain items. We do get some young folks in here and many of them are also musicians. We do sell quite a bit of reissues of things that’ve been out of print for a while. Both John Mori and myself, consistently look through the shelves, in drawers and in boxes in the back of the store and find items to list on Discogs, occasionally we find some rarities.  


Visit the Downtown Music Gallery, if not in person, then online at:

Also, check out the weekly gigs at the store via Instagram (and then go!):


Matty said...

Great interview and an iconic store!

Martin Schray said...

Support the store, guys! I'm there whenever I'm in New York. It's a great place and Bruce is incredibly nice.

Nick Ostrum said...

Agreed. DMG is always well worth the trip. It is just such a unique place. I remember when I bought my first Keiji Haino album there after a little pep-talk from Bruce himself...